Studies in American Political Development

Research Article

Frontlash: Race and the Development of Punitive Crime Policy

Vesla M. Weavera1

a1 University of Virginia

Civil rights cemented its place on the national agenda with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, fair housing legislation, federal enforcement of school integration, and the outlawing of discriminatory voting mechanisms in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Less recognized but no less important, the Second Reconstruction also witnessed one of the most punitive interventions in United States history. The death penalty was reinstated, felon disenfranchisement statutes from the First Reconstruction were revived, and the chain gang returned. State and federal governments revised their criminal codes, effectively abolishing parole, imposing mandatory minimum sentences, and allowing juveniles to be incarcerated in adult prisons. Meanwhile, the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965 gave the federal government an altogether new role in crime control; several subsequent policies, beginning with the Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and culminating with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, ‘war on drugs,’ and extension of capital crimes, significantly altered the approach. These and other developments had an exceptional and long-lasting effect, with imprisonment increasing six-fold between 1973 and the turn of the century. Certain groups felt the burden of these changes most acutely. As of the last census, fully half of those imprisoned are black and one in three black men between ages 20 and 29 are currently under state supervision. Compared to its advanced industrial counterparts in western Europe, the United States imprisons at least five times more of its citizens per capita.

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